I don’t think I really knew what Zoom was until I needed to take a crash course in it in order to teach my first pandemic-era Novel Writing class at The Gotham Writers Workshop.
The very day that Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that all public buildings in New York City would be shut, Gotham called a meeting of its teachers to give us all a crash course in the platform. I’m not what one would call tech-savvy, but Zoom was pretty easy to figure out, and though there were some hiccups, it was pretty convenient – and soon, the rest of the country learned it too: How it functions, how to troubleshoot, and what lighting presents the best version of our at-home selves to the virtual world.
It’s almost impossible to launch a book during these COVID times without hosting virtual readings, launch parties, and discussion events. But I never realized how much authors need gatherings to truly thrive.
Writing is in many ways a solitary profession, but publishing is not. Authors need to get out there and mingle with readers to promote their work. Pre-pandemic, there were many places to do that: bookstores, libraries, trade shows, and book events like New York’s BookExpo or the Bay Area Book Festival, etc. While some shops and libraries have opened to smaller, controlled groups, most places are still largely shuttered, especially to larger crowds. Authors and publishers, like everyone else, have had to adapt to the new normal and find new ways to promote things without in-person appearances.
I had a novel set to come out last May. I thought there was a chance (at least in the beginning of all this) that by May, it would all be OK. But we all know now no one was going to open up for an in-person book launch party in May 2020, especially for an event with a set goal to pack as many people in as possible. And so I contented myself (and even got really excited for) my virtual launch. My publisher had just been to a web conference on Zoom book launches with his distributor, and he was very excited. “I know we can’t go to trade shows. The New York BookExpo is out. But at least we can do this,” he said.
Great, I thought. My sister in Portland, Oregon, and my family in Illinois will finally get to come to one of my book launches. I’ll be able to invite people who might not want to go out but might just turn on their computer. As I started to prepare for my virtual book launch, I considered all the ways this would be better than the old bookstore model.
Then the launch happened. It wasn’t the same thing as a bookstore launch, but I thought it went well. I didn’t have a shop behind me like I’d had for the launch of The Beekeeper’s Daughter, a literary novel I’d published just months before in December, but I was able to hype the launch on social media pretty easily. I made fliers and had friends email the friends of friends and post them on their social media sites. I even felt safe enough posting the meeting code on Facebook for perfect strangers to access. And I will say the launch was crowded. Usually about 12 to 15 people came to an in-person event, but the virtual event brought in about 25 people. Because so many people came from many different locations the event was a success as a social event in virtual space. People I knew came from many states, which contributed to the higher number of participants. People I didn’t know came. My moderator asked great questions. I was on fire with an involved Q&A and a lively reading from the novel. It went over an hour. All good things, right?
And then I got the sales reports from the bookstore I was working with. Out of all those people who had come to my book launch, only three had bought the book the day of the launch.
But that’s OK, I said to myself. This will drive sales later. Maybe they were just tired after the launch, I thought, remembering that it had ended at 9:00 p.m. They’d pick it up tomorrow. Or in a few days. And while the book did sell more copies than those first three purchases over the next few weeks, it didn’t sell that well – certainly not as well as my other books had sold after similar, but in-person, launches. When I politely asked a few people who had come to the launch if they’d picked up the book, most of them said, “No, not yet. I’ll get right on that.” Judging by the sales figures, they never did.
And so while the Zoom launch was fun, while it was packed and people seemed to enjoy coming together (a friend of mine told me that the launch had given him his first reason to have a good, stiff drink since the lockdown)…not many of them actually bought the book.
I started to wonder about the difference in sales figures. I came up with a few guesses right away, and then I did some research and learned some things about economics and the human psyche. Turns out it’s different to see an Amazon link, or even a link to a smaller bookstore that might be hosting your Zoom book launch, than it is seeing a physical book you can grab and pay for on the spot. Customers want convenience. You have to make it easy for them to buy your stuff. And clicking an Amazon link during a Zoom party, filling out all your shipping and billing information, triple-checking your credit card number – it just isn’t as satisfying as seeing a physical book at eye level that you can simply grab and take home with you instantly with one swipe of a credit card.
And also, I thought, maybe, just maybe, there’s something about having the author right there standing in front of you in person – whether it’s peer pressure or just the awe of seeing the author before your eyes – that might inspire (or shame) a book launch attendee into buying a book on the spot. One thing was clear: When they didn’t buy on the spot, many of them – even close friends or colleagues I knew in the writing community! – didn’t buy at all.
Something else I learned during my Econ 101 research was that most people who come for something for free, whether it’s an event or free content on a blog or website, rarely pay for the premium version offered alongside the freebie. In fact, only a small fraction of the people who consume content you give away for free will then turn around and actually purchase something. Plus, people are more likely to purchase something that is right in front of them on an impulse buy (like, say, a book in a bookstore) than if they can go home and think about whether they really want to make the purchase. Potential readers have to go through the extra step of ordering the book after the launch – they might just be too tired after a night on Zoom, close the laptop, and completely forget by the next morning.
As I watched my sales numbers drop from the books I’d previously launched, I started to think more and more about the difference between a good, old fashioned face-to-face book launch party, one held at a bookstore or another venue (pre-COVID I had gone to book launches at people’s homes, even one at a pretty happening bar in Greenwich Village), and a virtual launch. And, yes, there is something magical about face-to-face contact, and I do hope that we can once again safely congregate in larger groups, but until then Zoom book launches, just like Zoom board meetings and Zoom classrooms, seem to be here to stay. And honestly, even when we do return to more in-person friendly launches, a Zoom launch is still a good idea for those fans, family, and friends who don’t live in your area and aren’t going to be able to get to you.
To be fair, too, I know a launch isn’t just about selling books (and making money). Yes, it’s good to get your name out there. Yes, it’s good to create community around your brand and your work. But authors need to sell books as well, not only to make money to, y’know, live, but also to justify to their publishers why they deserve to have their next book published. That’s the industry and the world we live in. So how can authors sell more books at all these Zoom readings, launches, book talks, and other events increasingly popping up on our calendars?
Here are a few ideas.
Play up the small business angle, but play the local angle harder
Don’t just throw an Amazon link to your book up on the screen. Even if you’re working with a small press (which is many times also a mom-and-pop business), don’t ask people to purchase the books through the publisher – that’s just not local enough. Partner with a small bookstore (or two, maybe even three if you know people from more than one locale are going to come) and try to give your launch a local feel. If you’re doing Zoom launches for various communities in different places, partner with a local bookstore in each spot.
For my most recent book event, I had invited mostly people from my hometown in Illinois and a small town in Vermont where I had spent a lot of time. I made sure to partner with two small-town bookstores, bookstores people attending the event might know. I then made sure to plug the bookstores and the sense of local pride. At one point, I said, “I know the people from Illinois will want to buy this from the Illinois bookstore, and the Vermonters will want to get the book from the Vermont bookstore.” It was just an offhand statement, but it plays up local pride and makes people feel like they are helping out a small business in their own community. I even put together a PowerPoint presentation with pictures of the mom and pop bookstore owners standing in front of their stores, videos of the places, and interviews with the owners talking about how sales are down because of COVID. By making people feel like they’re supporting an author and also supporting Main Street as well, it’s more likely they’ll actually buy.
Give them a reason to come back
I realized that by offering a follow-up reading or discussion, I could not only bring people back to me and keep them thinking about my book, but I also might be able to get a few people to buy the book for the next discussion. To accompany my last launch discussion, I curated a few questions that connected to hot-button, thematic issues that people might come back for a Zoom talk about. My last novel, Nod, was about a peaceful primordial civilization that is corrupted when a larger, more capitalistic group of people come to town. I decided to not only discuss the book but present the book as an indictment of capitalism, and I connected my novel and the themes of it to other issues surrounding capitalism. Many people, about 20, showed up for the Zoom, and I saw that a few people had brought their books to the discussion. I also noticed that book sales had gone up a little bit before the discussion and they went up a bit more after it as well. I also hosted a read-along of the book after another launch party. The plan was to do a reading and discussion and then ask people to share passages from the book that they wanted to talk about. I scheduled it for two weeks after a couple of my other virtual events to give people time to order and receive the book, then I played up the idea that they could read their favorite passages from the book (hence, it would help to have the book in hand). A few people showed up without the book, but I saw that many people were there, book in hand, ready to discuss.
One of the things I miss most about in-person events is signing my books. There’s nothing like seeing someone who has just listened to me speak, someone I may or may not know, come up to me, book in hand, a sheepish smile on their face, as they ask me to sign their book. It’s part of the deal at these events. Attendees buy your book, here and now, right in front of you, and they receive an autographed copy. They get to say that they met the author. They get to show it to their grandkids and say, “I knew her when.” And we don’t have to break that tradition just because we can’t meet in-person. It might cost a little more in postage (but who doesn’t want to help out the USPS right now?) but offering to send signed bookplates to people who have bought your book is a goodwill gesture, a way to continue to connect with the people who support you. There are many printing shops, the places where authors purchase their swag, that will make custom bookplates using all or part of your cover, or you can pick up a bookplate that uses a theme that works for your book. (Some authors only send the bookplates to people who can produce a receipt for your book, but I think that’s going too far. I want to trust my readers, and anyone who asks for a signed bookplate is welcome to one.)
Offer swag bags or giveaways
Another marketing tool that works well for authors is swag. Anyone who publishes a book is familiar with going to the printer to order bookmarks, postcards, or, if they’re feeling generous, maybe some personalized totes or hats or T-shirts. Swag comes in all shapes and sizes. Some people just like to purchase the whole package, and so I’ve sent swag bags that I promote at my virtual events to small bookstores to mail out with purchased books. It gives people a sense that they’re buying more than a book. You can charge a little more for these book-bag combinations, and the people browsing the bookstores (masked and socially distanced, of course) are more intrigued by a bag containing not only a book but also some bookmarks and a magnet or baseball cap and might make that impulse purchase in the store. Offering to give away a few of these swag bags is also a good virtual marketing technique.
Showcase your event on YouTube
You might try offering your event up as a discussion on Insert-Current-Topic-Thematically-Connected-to-Your-Book-Here. This works for fiction writers as well as nonfiction writers. Record your entire event, and then offer it up as a whole or in bits and pieces to platforms like YouTube, which can lead to views and potential book purchases down the road. If you talk a lot about your writing process, maybe you label a section as a lecture on The Craft of Writing. If you tell a story about how you were inspired to write your book, you might call this section Where Creative Ideas Come From. So much of what we say as authors is valuable information for not only those who care about our books but also aspiring writers or writers who might find themselves stuck or want inspiration, and so it’s important to put what we say (not just what we write) out there for people to see and hear and experience.
At the end of the day, it’s all about our writing and how to get our work into the hands of as many readers as possible. I learned through trial and error that Zoom parties are their own unique animal, and you can’t just emulate online what you would do in-person to make it work as well as possible for a totally different medium. But with a few tweaks and some thinking and planning, Zoom parties can hopefully sell as much or more as in-person events.
—Jessica Stilling has published two literary novels, Betwixt and Between and The Beekeeper’s Daughter, a novel exploring the life of the poet Sylvia Plath. She has also published three young adult fantasy novels, including Nod, her most recent publication, which explores the life of the biblical Cain from a modern perspective. She sits on the editorial board of the Global City Press, and she teaches creative writing at Gotham Writers Workshop.